We sat down with Italian chef and owner of ORIGO, Matteo Alberti, who now calls Kanazawa home, chatting about his culinary inspirations, the ups and downs of running a business in Japan, and the Kanazawa specialties he recommends to gift even the pickiest of foodie friends.
What are some of the restaurants inspiring you now?
Nowadays there are countless inspiring restaurants throughout Japan, Italy and around the world. Whilst I was waiting to start the new ORIGO project, I took some time to research some of the top restaurants in the country and was lucky enough to eat at and experience life in the kitchen in some of the most respected establishments in Japan:
Tsubaki (Kanazawa): I didn't have the chance to work here, but I particularly respect and enjoy their ability to give a ‘voice’ to the handpicked wild ingredients that they incorporate into their cooking. I admire the straightforward confidence of their dishes, as well as their humbleness in cooking for the simple pleasure of feeding their guests, rather than to become famous.
There is a concept in the Japanese culture called shibui, which emerged in the 16th century with the fashioning of tea ceremony. In order to focus the mind solely on the tea itself, the design and ornamentation of the tea house was refined into the simple and elegant minimalism it is known for today. This is what I feel and I admire at Tsubaki.
INUA (Tokyo): Their constant research and development of local products is so inspiring, as is their balance between food tradition and innovation.
La Cime (Osaka): With their foundations set in classic French technique, La Cime’s menu is the result of a creative melting point between the flavours of Japan and France. The personality of head chef Yusuke Takada really shines through each dish, and this inspires me a lot as someone who is humbly attempting to channel a similar ethos through ORIGO.
How does Italy inspire your menus today?
Italy is the country that raised me, where all my best and worst memories were made. For Italians, food is really considered a form of communication to express feelings or celebrate moments and it’s why Christmas, birthdays, and other festivities have such a big impact on our lives. Every event is celebrated with a meal and there are very few countries in the world where they give the same importance to food as much as we do in Italy.
Food is really an expression of love. For me it is inevitable not to think of Italy whenever I create a dish, even if it has nothing to do with my home country. Cooking for me is something very intimate, and in a way it is my personal language to communicate my past, my present, and my future.
Where do you like to buy your produce/ingredients?
I am usually very picky when it comes to buying food, and most of the time I visit the same suppliers as my restaurant to deepen both our relationship and my knowledge of the produce. For fish, I like the local Omicho market and for any vegetables, fruits or pre-packed meals I usually go to a small vegetable shop called Kanazawa Yaomatsu. The latter is similar to a European delicatessen, where cooks prepare delicious lunch boxes made with local, seasonal ingredients. Kagutsuchi is another great place to find local artisan products, mainly vegetables and fruits.
For other items such as soy sauce, miso, wines, or nihonshu [the Japanese word for sake] I go directly to local micro producers and suppliers. I’d recommend Fukuro Project, they sell Noto peninsula salt and miso with a stylish and modern twist. Yamato Soysauce and Miso Co. is also great - they’re a family-run business located in Onomachi along Kanazawa’s seaside, and have produced soy sauce and miso since 1911. This area was once used for miso production, and other than Yamato soy sauce you can also visit other smaller local businesses nearby.
What’s one of your go-to recipes when you cook at home?
I used to enjoy cooking when I was an employed chef, but ever since I opened my own restaurant it has left me very little time to cook for myself. However, something easy and tasty that I never tire of is pasta. There are some Italian dishes that - when properly made - are full of flavour and are usually very quick to prepare. My favourite dishes are spaghetti with vongole (clams), burro e acciughe (butter and anchovy), and the very filling (and unbeatable) carbonara (egg and bacon based sauce).
What would you recommend foodie friends to try or buy in Kanazawa?
There are plenty of food souvenirs to choose from. Kaburasushi is one of the oldest versions of sushi eaten since the Edo era. It consists of slated buri (yellow tail) fillets sandwiched between fermented turnip slices, then pickled together in koji (a rice fungus used to ferment miso, soy sauce, and nihonshu - the Japanese word for sake), which is essential to the foundations of a quintessential Japanese kitchen. Kaburasushi was usually eaten during the winter time, and the contrast between sweet, sour, and umami flavours pairs particularly well with nihonshu.
Nihonshu is also a must try in Kanazawa. Local breweries draw from the mild, natural-tasting waters of the neighbouring Hakusan mountains and its long winters (the season in which production takes place) to produce a fantastic tipple. There are many great breweries in town with a long history of producing nihonshu, such as Tedorigawa, Nakamura Shuzou, and the oldest - Fukumitsuya - which dates back to 1625. Chikuha, Manzairaku, and Noda Sake are lesser known brands but their quality is also fantastic.
Kanazawa is one of the cities with the highest consumption of wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) in all of Japan. These artistically shaped sweets are so beautifully made that you almost don’t want to eat them. I would recommend visiting Morihachi, a confectioner with a long history that has produced wagashi in Kanazawa since 1625. Yoshihashi Kashiten is another local shop I enjoy, which is a small production, family-run business.
What’s your favourite thing about living in Kanazawa?
I like living in a compact sized city. Kanazawa is very charming, with a strong Japanese character. It is unspoiled and calm, but at the same time it’s very exciting thanks to its long history and the many natural attractions that surround it. I enjoy the fact that Kanazawa is quiet yet so easily connected to many other major Japanese cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto.
Being a chef is notoriously hard-work. Where do you go in the city to relax? And if you want to go a little further afield?
My favourite place to relax is a nearby city mountain called Utatsuyama, where there are shrines, endless trails, and natural parks. If I have more time I usually go to the Noto peninsula. Here you can experience rural Japan and submerge yourself in the local culture. It's also full of untouched nature, onsen (natural hot springs), and shokunin (artisan) studios. For me, the sense of isolation and calm is what draws me in.
Your favourite place to have tea in the city? And coffee?
There are plenty of beautiful spaces where you can have delicious Japanese tea, but most of the time these places are overcrowded with tourists. However, at one of the main entrances to the famous Kenrokuen Garden stands Kenjotei, a recently renovated traditional Japanese tea house built in 1820. From here you can also enjoy an incredible view of sakura (cherry blossoms) in the springtime and the Kanazawa Castle bridge. The owner is very entertaining and charming, with a good command of English and another business running a geisha house.
For a more intimate and relaxing time, I like Isseian. Another old establishment, this ryotei (traditional restaurant) dates back more than 200 years, with a small but cosy room where you can drink matcha, eat modern style Kanazawa wagashi and appreciate the view of a beautifully kept private garden.
For coffee, I recommend Angolo Caffe - a stylish Italian style coffee shop housed in the same building as ORIGO. I usually drop by for a cappuccino and Italian pastry before starting my working day.
Townsfolk Coffee is also a great place for a north European style, lightly roasted drip coffee. If the weather is nice, you can enjoy a walk in the nearby park or stop at the city library.
What do you love about Japanese food, particularly related to Kanazawa?
What I like the most about Japanese food is its very long tradition. There is a huge variety of dishes to choose from, and every region has their own style, presentation and taste. Only 12% of Japan's total landmass is cultivable, with mountains providing the main source of vegetables until the Edo period. Since then, imported food has gradually become the norm. That said, what makes Kanazawa special is definitely the variety of fish and wild vegetables on offer. Most of the dishes are very lightly seasoned in order to enjoy the ingredients' naturally deep flavour. This has shaped the traditional dishes of the region today, which is distinguished by a respect to the quality of their fresh vegetables and animals. To me, Kanazawa’s cuisine is like the Kanazawa people themselves: refined, delicate, and it takes some time to truly understand.
When is the best time to visit? Why?
I personally think that autumn is the best time to visit the city. Kenrokuen* is renowned as one of the three best landscape gardens in all of Japan, and was once a part of Kanazawa Castle. The temperature is mild during this time of the year, so you can still comfortably enjoy the private, intimate atmosphere of the gardens in the evening when it opens for the autumnal night illuminations.
Food-wise, winter is definitely the best season to visit. This is the perfect time to eat the best fish in Japan.
Where would you take your friends if they are visiting for the first time?
The geisha district, samurai district, and Kenrokuen are the main tourist attractions in Kanazawa, and you can visit these within a couple of days. They are definitely worth a tour, but for a more authentic and unique view of the city I would go to one of my favourite paths that leads to Utatsuyama. At the bottom of the mountain and deep in the forest, there are more than 50 shrines surrounded by bamboo; most of them are unknown even to locals. These shrines have all aged in harmony with the untamed nature in which it sits. At the peak of the mountain there are many gardens and viewpoints where you can admire the extension of the city with the Hakusan mountains to one side and the Sea of Japan to the other.